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Science prof’s goals & ambitions loosened by fire, renewed by God

DAYTON, Tenn. (BP)–After a massive fire apparently destroyed most of his research, paleontologist Kurt Wise contemplated taking up landscaping, the skill that helped pay for his Harvard University graduate studies.

A blaze on Feb. 6, 2000, caused more than $10 million in damage to the administration building at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., where Wise established the Center for Origins Research and Education in 1989.

After watching the fire burn for six hours, the associate professor of science surrendered his professional goals and ambitions.

“I said, ‘God, if you’ve taken everything, there’s no possible way I can start over again,'” he recalled. “‘I’m willing to go wherever you want me to go, whatever that happens to be.’

“I feel that was part of the function of that fire,” added Wise, who said it stemmed from an electrical problem in the administration building. “I had been holding on to things too much. This was his way of having me lay my Isaac out on the altar. I came to the point where I was willing to give it all up. Then he began to give it back.”

Although the insurance company told him to consider everything a total loss, over the next few months Wise learned that wasn’t true.

Gradually, he saw that valuable research slides could be salvaged. Students and other volunteers helped with a painstaking recovery process that included pulling apart melted plastic files to recover them.

Others trimmed smoked edges from papers in his files, while his parents visited for a week to photocopy documents.

Eventually, he recovered approximately 95 percent of 5,000 damaged slides and about 80 percent of his files. The latter process is not quite completed, but Wise credits spiritual forces for the turnaround.

“I’m actually inclined to think it was because of the prayers of people who intervened that [so much] was restored,” he said. “I think it’s miraculous.”

In addition, people donated books, slides, specimens and money to help purchase materials. Although insurance only covered half of his financial losses, Wise said the donations nearly matched the remaining need.

The paleontologist, who holds Ph.D. and master’s degrees from Harvard, especially appreciated the books that helped him start rebuilding his 4,000-volume library.

Unbelievers and anti-creationists were among the benefactors who sent him several hundred books. The donation that touched him most came from a scientist who used to attend creationist conferences to ridicule young-earth theorists. Despite their differences, over the years he and Wise had become friends.

“He called me two days after the fire,” Wise said. “When I asked how he was doing, he said, ‘Not so good.’ He had cancer and judging by his description, I could tell it was pretty advanced.

“That was the first time I really cried after the fire — when I realized here was this guy, dying, and he’s calling me up to offer his condolences. I received a box of books from him that arrived after he died. He sent them out the last week of his life.”

Still, the fire caused setbacks, among them the cancelation of a conference on creationism that had been planned for the summer of 2000.

The school’s natural history museum — which Wise directed — hasn’t been rebuilt, since Bryan lacks funds to pay for display cases and other furnishings.

And his research has been set back about two years, including work at a dinosaur site in Wyoming, which Wise has been unable to visit since the fire.

However, he said he has learned a valuable lesson about not holding on to things too tightly. In the aftermath of the disaster, he saw that he had been putting too much value on his research and possessions.

“This didn’t necessarily strengthen my belief in God, but it knocked me down and gave me a better understanding of myself,” Wise said. “I’m less important in the grand scheme of things than I thought I was.”

As for preparing for a disaster, he offered several suggestions:

— Recognize that what you have is not yours, including your children. A father of two teenage daughters, Wise said parents must recognize that children are a gift from God, not personal possessions.

— If a disaster occurs, don’t be hesitant to ask for help. Many people received blessings by praying for him and helping him restore his collections, Wise said. “We’re often reluctant to share a need and others can’t be blessed in helping,” he said.

— Be aware that God operates outside of disasters. Many times, God is doing amazing things in daily life, but people fail to recognize it, he said.

“If we learn to recognize those things outside of disasters, we may have less of them to deal with,” Wise said. “We won’t have so many lessons to learn.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker